State Assaults Private Property

In his new book, Mugged By The State: Outrageous Government Assaults on Ordinary People and Their Property, published by Regnery, a sister company of HUMAN EVENTS, Randall Fitzgerald describes how common, ordinary American citizens have been subjected to government abuse. Fitzgerald, a veteran journalist, provides many riveting examples of ranchers, homeowners and small businessmen who have encountered the wrath of bureaucrats and regulators, who, in the zeal of enforcing cumbersome government regulations, have seized homes, private property, cars, bank accounts, and closed down businesses in the interest of “public safety” and the “public good.” Here are some excerpts from chapter two of Mr. Fitzgerald’s book:

Mugged by Eminent Domain

Suppose you are a homeowner or a small-business owner and one day a local government agency informs you that to promote the “public good” your property is being forcibly taken from you, at a price determined solely by the agency, and ownership will be transferred without charge to a corporation or a private developer.

Suppose you decide to fight this confiscation of your property in the courts, only to discover that a legal precedent against you had been set nearly a half-century earlier, and that that court decision blesses this arbitrary taking of your property rights. The fix is in and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. During the last decade of the 20th Century this sort of Kafkaesque dramatic tragedy was played out repeatedly in a variety of settings.

  • City officials in Hurst, Tex., decided to increase their tax revenues by condemning and seizing an entire neighborhood subdivision and giving the land to a mall developer for a new parking lot. This decision was subsequently upheld by a Texas state court ruling in May 1997 that ordered the eviction of ten families who had refused to sell their homes.
  • In Englewood, N. J., the city council voted in 1999 to declare a local industrial park “underutilized”-even though it was nearly 100% occupied with 16 productive businesses-so the land could be transferred to a private redeveloper for an office and housing complex that would generate $4-million annually in new tax revenue.
  • Florida’s Riviera Beach City Council approved a project in 2002 to condemn 1,700 homes and apartments, along with 150 small businesses, so the land could be turned over to private developers for construction of a commercial yachting center. Somehow, city officials managed to rationalize that the displacement of 5,000 low-income residents, and the elimination of one of the last affordable waterfront towns remaining in the entire state, would constitute the performance of a “public good.”

    This marriage between intrusive government agencies and exploitive corporate interests means that state and local governments have made strategic decisions that the ownership of home and business property should be contingent on who is capable of paying the most in taxes.

    Under federal and state constitutions the government’s right to take private property for “public use” was historically interpreted to mean the creation of roads, government buildings, and other public works projects. The 5th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits the taking of private property “for public use without just compensation,” and many state constitutions use similar wording. But from this seemingly straightforward language, government lawyers have fashioned complex loopholes transforming eminent domain into a tool to benefit politically influential private interests.

    As a consequence, under the banner of “redevelopment,” many government officials now interpret public good to mean the advancement of any business interest that creates more jobs and tax revenue than the business, home, or neighborhood that it replaces.

    Using this standard, a hardware store was judged to be more valuable than a brake repair shop by officials in Mesa, Ariz., while in Oklahoma City the city council took away 1.4 acres of downtown property from its owner and sold it to a politically favored developer.

    This unfair micromanaging of the economy by state and local governments prompted Loyola Law School professor Gideon Kanner, a specialist on eminent domain, to call the condemnation trend of the 1990s a malignancy of “developers spotting good property and getting their friends in government to condemn it for them. This abuse has produced widespread civic corruption. Judges, to their everlasting disgrace, are letting them get away with it.”

    Just when the tide of seizure battles acted out in the courts appeared to be irreversibly weighted toward government activism, in stepped the Institute for Justice with a series of legal and public relations counterattacks.

  • In New Jersey the institute stopped developer Donald Trump from using a state agency to confiscate a widow’s home whose land he coveted for a casino parking lot.
  • In Pittsburgh, Pa., the institute rallied the owners of 125 businesses who were faced with removal to make way for a private mall-development scheme. Using public protests, full-page newspaper advertisements, and the placement of ten large billboards around the city shaming Mayor Tom Murphy, who originated the seizure plan, the institute succeeded in November 2000 at reversing the decision.

    Opposing eminent domain abuse fits the spirit of sentiments spoken in the 18th Century by one of the nation’s founding fathers, John Adams: “The moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the Laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence. Property must be sacred or liberty cannot exist.”

    Connecticut Diner Targeted

    For over a half-century, Curley’s Diner had been a landmark in downtown Stamford, Conn., offering meals 24 hours a day at reasonable prices to a diverse and devoted clientele. Its standing in the community seemed so secure that when co-owner Maria Aposporos received a phone call in October 1999 from an official with the Stamford Urban Redevelopment Commission asking to meet with her, it never occurred to Maria that her livelihood and the diner’s fate was at stake.

    At the meeting, commission attorney Bruce Goldberg came right to the point: “We’re taking your property and we’re giving you $240,000 for it.” Feeling as if she would faint, Aposporos blurted out, “Do you want to buy my place, or do you want to steal it?” The session ended with the 52-year-old Aposporos storming out of Goldberg’s office declaring that she would fight for the diner’s survival in both the courts of law and public opinion.

    So it is understandable that community outrage was swift when the Redevelopment Commission issued its notice of intent on Dec. 20, 1999, to confiscate the diner for a revised appraisal payment of just $233,000. Within a few weeks, more than 7,000 Stamford residents had signed petitions pleading with city officials to spare the diner from destruction.

    In February 2002 the Connecticut Supreme Court struck down Stamford’s attempt to condemn Curley’s Diner, a decision that came the same week the court ruled in another case that the city of Bridgeport’s attempt to take a yacht club was unreasonable. These twin victories for foes of eminent domain signaled that the legal tide had truly begun to turn against government’s unrestricted use of this powerful tool.


    To purchase Mugged By The State, click here.